FBI Wants to Remove Privacy Protections From Biometric Database

A coalition including the ACLU and Uber is asking the FBI to extend a deadline by which the public must react to controversial changes to an information database.


A coalition of concerned companies and civil rights, human rights and privacy advocates—including Uber, Lyft, Amnesty International and the America Civil Liberties Union—has sent a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice to extend a deadline by which the public must respond to proposed privacy changes to the FBI's Next Generation Identification (NGI) system.

NGI is a biometric information database containing the fingerprints, facial recognition scans, iris scans and palm prints of millions of Americans, collected not only during arrests but alos during standard, non-criminal practices such as background checks and immigration requests.

According to a blog post by the ACLU, NGI even has the ability to store information about individuals' tattoos, voices and the way they walk.

The FBI has proposed exempting data in NGI from protections established by the Privacy Act of 1974, which was passed during the early days of computerized databases.

The act provides what the ACLU describes as "four important commonsense protections that the FBI now proposes to strip away": that people have the right to know what information the FBI is storing about them; that the data being used is accurate, timely and relevant; that people have the right to correct inaccurate information about themselves; and that people have the right to take the FBI to court if it behaves unlawfully.

In its letter, the coalition explains that the American public has waited years for the FBI to publish basic privacy notices about NGI.

"Despite pressure from Congress and civil society, the FBI didn't release a Privacy Impact Assessment about this program until September 2015," states the letter. "In fact, even though NGI itself was launched in 2008, the FBI didn't publish a System of Records Notice (SORN) about NGI until May 5, 2016—the same day it proposed to exempt the system from other, even more basic transparency requirements."
It continues: "The FBI waited over half a decade to publish a basic privacy notice about NGI. Now, the American people have 21 business days to comment on that system—and the FBI's request to make most of it secret. This is far too little time."

The coalition is asking that the deadline be extended by no fewer than 30 days.

It also notes that the NGI system includes a disproportionate amount of information on African Americans, Latinos and immigrants, and may not affect all Americans equally.

"Research authored by FBI personnel," states the letter, "suggests that some of the biometrics at the core of NGI, like facial recognition, may misidentify African Americans, young people, and women at higher rates than whites, older people and men, respectively."

The letter also claims that arrest records in NGI often fail to note whether a person was acquitted or if charges against them were dropped.

"According to a recent investigation," it adds, "every year, thousands of people undergoing fingerprint-based background checks lose work due to FBI records that are inaccurate or out of date."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, another signatory on the letter, noted on its site that while the FBI finally produced SORN for NGI, there's still much that's unknown.

"The Bureau indicated in a 2010 presentation that it wants to use NGI to track people's movements to and from 'critical events' like political rallies, to identify people in 'public datasets,' and to identify 'unknown persons of interest' from photographs," wrote EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. "This use of NGI would clearly impact First Amendment-protected activities and would chill speech."

Lynch added that technical controls preventing the upload of photos from other sources, such as social media or security cameras, don't seem to be in place.

In regard to the Privacy Act, the coalition noted, "While there may be legitimate reasons for exempting some law enforcement activities from some of the Act's provisions, exemptions must not render the Act meaningless."

The public currently has until June 6 to provide comments, which they can do here.